By Devin T. Quin
As the internet pushes the frontiers of fantasy and concept art to greater heights it becomes increasingly more difficult to remember a world without conceptart.com, imaginefx magazine, Spectrum and deviantart.com. The fantasy artist, likewise, has evolved into smaller, faster and more stylized professionals than ever before. If one would follow the evolution comparison we could argue that contemporary fantasy artists are a bunch of chickens!
Not because they are cowardly, but because they are a hearty, versatile breed of artists flourishing successfully. They are plentiful, and they are productive. Where fantasy art used to be relegated to the seedy covers of men’s magazines, and helpful instructors in this style unheard of, today’s fantasy artists can access peer reviews on countless internet forums or even in classrooms across the collegiate USA!
Some of these artists will never find work, and will live out their lives as internet trolls and nay-sayers, creating worthless chicken scratches of derivative quality and clucking their discontent at popular artists and peers to anyone who’ll read their bitter posts.
But for students taking the craft seriously there are more opportunities to work in the field of fantasy art than ever before! Their talent and versatility will serve as the main ingredient to many a creative dish. Films such as James Cameron’s “Avatar” and “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” wouldn’t be possible without hordes of hard working concept artists, nor would the billion dollar video game industry survive without the constant influx of new talent. Heck, video games are the KFC of concept art, and each new game is a crispy bucket of delicious new ideas and styles.
Today’s fantasy illustrator is indeed like a chicken, a plentiful animal that, with any luck, is ripe for mass consumption. The comparison is more pronounced when you consider the progenitors of today’s fantasy artists. Let’s take a look at the world of fantasy art in the 70’s and 80’s, a time when the pulp artists of the 30’s and 50’s had evolved out of the primordial sludge of publishing into a handful of powerful artists with presence and clout. A time of superstar artists that many kids today might look back at as bygone relics, antiquated fossils and worst of all… Dinosaurs.
Fantasy art in the 70’s and 80’s was a fearsome battleground paraded by a handful of gigantic, lumbering monsters. Legendary names like Boris Vallejo, Bernie Wrightson, Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley and Barry Windsor Smith were the undisputed kings of a very small field, and their styles and paintings were burned into the imaginations of every Dungeons and Dragons player, every Savage Sword of Conan reader and every heavy metal album buyer the world over.
Just like the dinosaurs, every kid in America had their favorite, and everyone could tell one from another. Any new painting by one of these legends was a great new archeological find as to how our visual imaginations worked.
This prehistory of modern fantasy art, just like the jungles of the Cretaceous before it, had but one undisputed king. Amongst the dinosaurs there was only one Tyrannosaurus Rex. In fantasy art there would only be one Frank Frazetta.
Frank Frazetta brought fine art sensibilities to fantasy illustration. His influences could be seen in the stark drama of Goya and William Blake with the crisp illustrative details for composition of Howard Pyle and Normal Rockwell. His work was bold, clear and dynamic. Strong blacks and grays defined the muscular contours of characters scarred in battle, or framed by bizarrely colored alien suns. His women were curvy, naked and powerful. Readers wanted to possess them, to step into the loincloths and ridiculously cool, polar bear-drawn sleighs of his heroes and to conquer the barren wastelands he depicted on his striking canvases.
Thousands bought up his iconic art which, by all accounts introduced the properties of Conan the Barbarian, John Carter of Mars and more to a public that had never picked up a fantasy novel previously. One can argue that Frazetta not only redefined the visual style of fantasy for decades to come but the newly honed, rough and illicit “Sword and Sorcery” style of subject material to a post Tolkein/Lewis readership.
Previously to Frazetta the look of fantasy was of flowing capes, bright colors and thin, lithe characters. It was a coupling of comic strips like Buck Rogers and Prince Valiant, (ironically, strips Frazetta would get work from years after their hey-day) with a pinch of Errol Flynn.
One of his quintessential pieces, “The Death dealer,” features a grim warrior on a warhorse brandishing an axe in silhouette. The colors, composition and style connoted a sense of mystery and menace that had never been seen before.
Everybody who followed after Frank, no matter how polished nor talented, was an imitator.
But Frank didn’t get to be where he was overnight. Years spent sharpening his artistic teeth in the fast paced and high demand world of comic books and comic strips lay behind him. Frank Frazetta was the ghost artist on America’s #1 comic strip, Al Capp’s Lil’ Abner for years, as well as countless other strips both under his name and bountiful pseudonyms. He worked with the equally praiseworthy Harvey Kurtzmann in the pages of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy on a risqué comic entitled Little Annie Fanny, a parody pastiche that bitingly lampooned popular culture while titillating with illustration and innuendo.
His book covers captured the imaginations of a nation. Hollywood came calling, hiring the Brooklyn native to paint lavish posters for their projects. Rock bands demanded reproduction rights and original works for their album covers. Years after he had left the strip, Harvey Kurtzmann and partner Will Elder poked fun at a new movie hitting the silver screen called “Conan the Barbarian” in the pages of Playboy by posing their scantily clad “heroine,” Little Annie Fanny at the feet of an Arnie Schwartzennegger stand in. The piece was done to look like the Conan movie poster, another Frazetta work derived from his earlier pieces.
Being professionals, Elder and Kurtzmann had to give credit where credit was due. That’s right: The two cartoonists had to inscribe the parody “With apologies to Frazetta,” the artist who, just a few years before, had worked for them!
His fans were everybody and everyone. He was a superstar illustrator in a time when TV and movies reigned supreme. When Saddam Hussain’s palaces were raided in our most recent Iraqi war dozens of fantasy paintings were found. While none of them were ACTUAL Frazetta’s (Thank’s to the artists far-sighted view of retaining his own work) the style and flavor were unmistakably Franks.
The golden age of fantasy illustration is gone, its dinosaurs all but wiped out. Their work remains as jpegs on the internet, to be studied and imitated by current artists striving for an “old school” feel. Following his success Frank retired to private grounds and a public museum of his work in Pennsylvania. As time passed him by he suffered from failing health and a bitter, public fight over his work/management by his children. He finally died on May 10, 2010 of a stroke at the age of 82.
It only takes one innovator to capture the collective imaginations of an awaiting audience, and from that success new industries, talents and creative voices will spring. These imitators, however, will always owe a debt to their forefathers. Their work will always stand on the shoulders of the greats.
Frank Frazetta will forever be the T. Rex of fantasy.